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Peeking Behind the Church Doors

Book reviews of What You Will See Inside a Catholic Church by Reverend Michael Keane (Skylights Paths Publishing, 2002); What You Will See Inside a Mosque by Aisha Karen Khan (Skylights Paths Publishing, 2003); What You Will See Inside a Synagogue by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman and Dr. Ron Wolfson (Skylights Paths Publishing, 2004); What You Will See Inside a Hindu Temple by Dr. Mahendra Jani and Dr. Vandana Jani (Skylights Paths Publishing, 2005).

"What does it look like inside that church?" It's a question I posed to my parents when I was young; it's a question I heard from my own children as they became aware that some buildings were ones we didn't enter because they represented a different religion. I never had a good answer other than to suggest that we make a visit and, to be honest, sometimes I felt intimidated about entering the home of another faith.

This new series, designed for children ages 6 and up, is intended to help kids understand both the rituals and the beliefs of different religions. In a time when we are increasingly aware of the importance of understanding other religions and cultures, it's critical for all of us to educate ourselves about the religious beliefs and practices of Americans and citizens of the world.

The series offers a chance to look briefly at each of these faiths. Of course, it is helpful to broaden our understanding by using other books as well; for example, David Macaulay's Mosque (Houghton, 2003) offers a deeper look at the full dimensions of Islam. But for children of the age range for which the books are intended, there's nothing else quite like these books.

Why does it matter what foot we use to enter a Hindu Temple? (Answer: Hindus enter by first putting their right foot inside to show that they are entering with the right frame of mind.) Why are mosques often very plain inside? (Answer: because Muslims do not want to be distracted during prayer.) Why is there a small decorative container on the right-hand doorpost of every synagogue? (Answer: to remind Jews that this is God's house.) Why is a cross carried into the church when a celebration called the Mass begins? (Answer: to remind congregants to be thankful that Jesus died for their sins).

These are fascinating facts, but how much do they tell us about each of these religions?

"Enough" might be the best answer to that question, for children of this age group to understand what they are seeing when they visit the home of another faith with their religious school class or their family. By reading all four books, children will comprehend similarities in practices, such as that some Jews wear a special head covering (kippah) and/or a prayer shawl (tallit) to show respect for God while Muslims dress modestly and cover their heads for the same reason. Similarly, by reading all four books, children will see that there is a wide difference in perceptions of God, from the Jewish God that cannot be pictured to the Hindu concept of multiple forms that each express special powers and virtues of God.

What if we simply want to share one of these religions with a child? The series is outstanding for this purpose as well. Each book is complete in itself. Each book covers, in 32 succinct and colorful pages, the basics about the religion. For example, for the family that wants to better understand Catholicism, covered topics include: the altar, music, the Eucharist, offering gifts, Christmas and Easter, baptism and confirmation.

A small gripe: each of the books has a foreword by a scholar of the particular religion. For the most part, these forewords are friendly and welcoming. However, the foreword for the Catholic book, written by Robert J. Kealey, Executive Director of the Department of Elementary Schools of the National Catholic Education Association, arguably crosses the line into proselytizing. With phrases that assume that the reader has already been visiting a Catholic church regularly and/or that suggest that the reader would want to know about a Catholic church "because it is such a special place" and because "Our God is a loving God. He wants his children not to fear him but to love him," this foreword made me uncomfortable. The other forewords, however, are welcoming without assuming that the reader should or would want to practice the religion it describes.

For interfaith families, the series can be very helpful. While it does not offer a sophisticated, in-depth discussion of each of these religions, what it does provide is something just as important--an ability to understand some of the most fundamental rituals and beliefs of each of these important world religions.

In Judaism, this refers to a ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. In Christianity, confirmation is either considered a sacrament or a rite ceremonially performed in a church. In some denominations and churches, confirmation is understood as bestowing the Holy Spirit. In others it signifies entering adulthood. In still others, it results in church membership. Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.

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